Salad dressing is incredibly important, and it's not dramatic to say it can save your life.
But not just any salad dressing. It has to be the right one, and the right salad dressing will generally be one you make yourself. A thoughtfully crafted homemade salad dressing can help you accomplish two goals.
1. It can enhance the nutritional value of your salad rather than detract from it, as with most store-bought varieties, specifically Hidden Valley Ranch. Here are the ingredients in that particular offender:
Soybean Oil, Water, Egg Yolk, Sugar, Salt, Cultured Nonfat Buttermilk, Natural Flavors (Soy), Spices. Less than 1% of Dried Garlic, Dried Onion, Vinegar, Phosphoric Acid, Xanthan Gum, Modified Food Starch, Monosodium Glutamate, Artificial Flavors, Disodium Phosphate, Sorbic Acid and Calcium Disodium EDTA as Preservatives, Disodium Inosinate and Disodium Guanylate.
The primary ingredient in most dressings is oil, the most concentrated fat and calorie source on the planet, and a nutritionally deficient one at that. So two tablespoons of Hidden Valley contain 145 calories -- 135 of them from fat -- plus lots of additives and preservatives, one-eighth of the sodium you are allowed for the day (in two tablespoons of food), and less than 1 percent of any necessary nutrient.
2. A delicious homemade dressing can make you salivate over the prospect of eating more vegetables, specifically the dark leafy greens that are so immensely important because of their superior nutrient density.
Of course, some of us are lucky enough to have grown up with a parent who lovingly nagged us to eat our greens. But none of us, not even the nags themselves, could have known how astute these spinach-pushing mantras were.
As recently as last year, researchers at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research found evidence that the presence of leafy greens in the diet has the capacity to activate a gene (T-bet) that creates special immune cells (innate lymphoid cells, or ILCs) responsible for keeping the body healthy in a host of ways:
- They fight off bad bacteria in the intestines and bacterial infections that invade through the digestive system.
- They might play an important role in controlling inflammatory diseases, obesity, and food allergies.
- They might prevent the development of bowel cancers.
When it comes to weighing the idea of a whole-foods, plant-based diet against a typical nutrient-deficient American diet, the scales need no more tipping. But this research does provide yet another reason to feel good about loading your plate with collard greens, watercress, arugula, bok choy, cabbage, romaine lettuce, spinach, and, yes, the now-famous but still-not-overrated kale.
So, what are these homemade dressings that can help us accomplish these two simple yet potentially life-saving goals? A great healthful salad dressing will be free of oil, white sugar, and animal products and will instead incorporate whole plant foods and seasonings. I make up new ones every week -- you can get very creative once you get a feel for the flavor combos that work. Some of my favorites involve frozen fruit and raw nuts; some incorporate hummus, fresh juice, ginger root, and all manner of spices.
But let's start simply, with my Easy Tahini Balsamic. To make this homemade dressing, all you need are four ingredients (plus water) and a fork.
Let's compare the nutritional value of the below dressing to the Hidden Valley Ranch dressing I mentioned above. Two tablespoons of Easy Tahini Balsamic contain only roughly 70 calories, 35 of them from fat. And for those meager calories, you get calcium, iron, magnesium, brain-boosting vitamin E, fiber, and plant protein. All of these nutrients come from the cholesterol-lowering sesame seeds that are the primary, if not sole, ingredient in tahini. (The only other "acceptable" ingredient in tahini is salt.) Even if you use a salted tahini, you will end up getting less than 15 milligrams of sodium in two tablespoons of this dressing, which is less than 1 percent of your daily allowance.
So here's how to do it:
Easy Tahini Balsamic
- 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
- 1/4 cup tahini
- 1 tablespoon raw honey or maple syrup
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup water
Whisk together all ingredients. Continue to beat until very smooth and consistent.
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Use this dressing on any leafy greens or fresh or steamed vegetables. It's also great for dressing veggies and tofu in whole-grain wraps. This recipe makes about 8 servings. Refrigerate any unused portion in an airtight container for up to two weeks. Ingredients can separate over time; you might have to rewhisk.
Light dinner suggestion (pictured above): Toss 3 cups finely chopped kale, collard greens, arugula, or baby spinach with 3/4 cup no-sodium-added garbanzo beans, one cored and chopped Golden Delicious apple, and three tablespoons of Easy Tahini Balsamic.
Follow Camille at camillelamb.com.